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How to Make Money Out of Electric Vehicles

Fri, 10/14/2011 - 11:55am
Dr Peter Harrop, Chairman, IDTechEx

r Peter Harrop, Chairman, IDTechEx

Contrary to popular understanding, people have been making money out of electric vehicles for over 110 years. Unfortunately there have also been bankruptcies in the electric vehicle business in most of those years. The primary difference lies in market positioning not brilliant inventions, working long hours, automation of production, matching the size of your operation to the amount of business you can realistically gain - avoiding over and under-investment - and other aspects that come to mind. Those are sometimes important but always secondary. In market positioning, the two key factors are avoiding excessive competition, including rigged markets, and making what will be wanted in the years to come. For example, the leaders in pure electric indoor forklifts make good money and now that outdoor hybrid forklifts are the growth sector, others are seeking to lead in them, rather than focussing on the saturated market. The acid test is to ask, "What am I doing, that customers will want and can afford, that others either cannot or do not offer?"

For example, an increasing number of car manufacturers make their own batteries and electric motors. (See the Car Traction Batteries 2011-2021 report www.IDTechEx.com/Traction) Those seeking to supply these are increasingly competing with their customers unless they appraise the whole market for electric vehicles by land, water and air and focus on what is appropriate for them. Newcomers are usually surprised at the size and number of niche opportunities. Examples include the Northrop Grumman solar-powered electric airship being made for surveillance under a $517 million order, the $100 million already spent on hand- launched pure electric surveillance aircraft from AeroVironment and the large pure electric and fuel cell hybrid Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UAVs) costing up to $5 million each, not least because they use up to 400 kWh lithium-ion batteries. Hybrid and pure electric superyachts cost $25 to $65 million. Polaris Industries is set to have a business of over $500 million just in off-road pure electric vehicles - military and non-military - and range extenders for hybrid commercial vehicles. In other words it will prosper from making both EVs and their components where it has useful uniques and limited competition.

For component suppliers, it is also important to avoid excessive competition, from those rigged markets in China to competing with your customer. For example, battery manufacturers have yet to fully take on board that Toyota is filing battery patents faster than they are.  Motor manufacturers have to face the fact that Toyota now makes advanced asynchronous and synchronous motors, using them on its buses, forklifts, cars and more. However, even Toyota has to accept that most electric buses in the booming bus market analysed in the IDTechEx report, "Electric Buses and Taxis 2011-2021" will be made in China by Chinese companies, for use in China, the government controlling the whole supply chain.

Certainly component manufacturers need to avoid technologies that are inevitably losers because they cannot serve future market needs for certain basic reasons. For example, lead acid batteries are losing market share faster and faster for all the obvious reasons but nickel metal hydride batteries cannot have the energy density or limited self-leakage that are vital as hybrids move from the 50 mile (80km) benchmark today to much more electric range as demanded by users wanting to save on fuel costs. Contrast supercapacitors, also known as ultracapacitors, being used from bikes to buses and military vehicles, even replacing batteries in some cases. There are too few suppliers of these and they are taking out too few patents as revealed in the IDTechEx report, "Advanced Energy Storage Technologies: Patent Trends and Company Positioning" which is based on computer analysis of 40,000 patents and other research.

The new IDTechEx report, "Electric Motors for Electric Vehicles 2012-2022"  reveals market sizes and criteria for winners and losers in this sector. Most suppliers are headed for trouble but the winner in motors will have a very profitable, enduring business of over $2 billion by selling motors beyond just cars because that is where most of the market value and profit lies, as it does with other components and subsystems.

For example, the advantages of DC electric motors with commutators and brushes are looking less and less compelling as the vehicles themselves are being adapted for more hostile environments. This includes upper atmosphere aircraft, those travelling deep under water and those in field of combat. Consequently, although DC brushed motors were seen as easily sourced, affordable and easily understood and integrated into vehicles, the following disadvantages come more to the fore nowadays and even hobbyists are starting to use better alternatives.

Brushed motors have problems of sparks, dust, reliability and creation of electromagnetic interference and acoustic noise which do not recommend them to stealth vehicles in the military for example. Putting them into reverse needs special equipment, not just a switch as with brushless AC motors. Commutator and brush damage sometimes occurs when reversing while it is advanced for forward rotation. These are unnecessary problems for those that can use alternatives in electric vehicles that reverse, this including those by land and water. In motor assisted pedal bikes commutator motors cause drag and users dislike them. The in-hub brushless motor is winning here, usually in the back wheel.

If a DC motor controller's power stage fails, the entire battery pack voltage is applied to the motor so there must be good circuit breakers, fuses, kill switches etc with good reaction time. Frankly, major car manufacturers betting their brand on safety and security do not want that hassle although good design can work around it. By contrast, the power stages of an AC inverter are used to generate power for the motor, not regulate it, so they are inherently safe because they simply stop the AC motor from using power.

Electric aircraft typically have high speed propellers but DC motors with brushes cannot manage very high RPM because of the limitations of mechanical contacts. This is also a problem with the often preferred high voltage, high RPM motor systems in land vehicles that can be more efficient. The relatively short life of motors with brushes is problematic with most applications now that even civil vehicles have five year warranties, maintenance of anything is increasingly expensive and some Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) will even be deployed for five years at a time without maintenance.

Finally, motors with brushes tend to be bigger than some alternatives and this is not welcome when most applications need space saving by making components smaller, even putting them in the wheel of a bus and in steerable pods under boats. With the right motor, even the boat generates power without a separate generator when moored in a tidal stream or under sail. The minority of motor manufacturers making what is really wanted have a prosperous future in front of them. This full picture is uniquely analysed in the IDTechEx series of reports on the different vehicles and components and in the forthcoming, "Electric Vehicles Land Sea Air" event in San Jose California 27-28 March 2012, www.IDTechEx.com/evUSA.



Posted by Janine E. Mooney, Editor

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